My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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This Wednesday: Six tips for tackling a dreaded task.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Six tips for tackling a dreaded task.

Going to the gym. Practicing a new skill when you have no skill. Giving bad news. Dealing with tech support.

We all have to make ourselves do things that we just don’t want to do. Here are some tricks I’ve learned that help me power through the procrastination.

1. Do it first thing in the morning. If you’re dreading doing something, you’re going to be able to think of more creative excuses as the day goes along. One of my Twelve Commandments is “Do it now.” No delay is the best way.

2. If you find yourself putting off a task that you try to do several times a week, try doing it EVERY day, instead. When I was planning my blog, I envisioned posting two or three times a week. Then Eugene Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy convinced me that no, I needed to post every day. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, I think it’s easier to do it every day (well, except Sundays) than fewer times each week. There’s no dithering, there’s no juggling. I know I have to post, so I do. If you’re finding it hard to go for a walk four times a week, try going every day.

3. Have someone keep you company. Studies show that we enjoy practically every activity more when we’re with other people. Having a friend along can be a distraction, a source of reassurance, or just moral support.

4. Make preparations, assemble the proper tools. I often find that when I’m dreading a task, it helps me to feel prepared. Here’s a silly example: I always dread packing, especially for my children. Yesterday, finally, I made a list of every possible item I might need to pack for any conceivable trip. Already, I dread the thought of packing less. I have a list.

5. Commit. We’ve all heard the advice to write down your goals. This really works, so force yourself to do it. Usually this advice relates to long-term goals, but it works with short-term goals, too. On the top of a piece of paper, write, “By the end of today, April 25, I will have _____.” This also gives you the thrill of crossing a task off your list. (See below.)

6. Remind yourself that finishing a dreaded task is tremendously energizing. Studies show that hitting a goal releases chemicals in the brain that give you pleasure. If you’re feeling blue, although the last thing you feel like doing is something you don’t feel like doing, push yourself. You’ll get a big lift from it.

This following link is related to the topic of happiness only in that it is such an elegant, sensible, economical solution to a sticky problem that is gives me a thrill just to contemplate it. I don’t even NEED this advice, but still, I appreciate its intelligence: Seth Godin explains how a small business or organization (or single person) who needs a web presence can get something perfectly satisfactory up with minimal money and effort, just using Typepad, a Squidoo lens, and Flickr (and actually maybe all you need is Typepad).

I'm deep in the writing of my next book, Before and After, about making and breaking habits, and there's nothing more satisfying than reading the success stories of people who have changed a habit. If you have a Before-and-After story of a habit you changed, and you're willing to share it here on the blog, please contact me here. Once a week, I'll post a story. We can all learn from each other.

Can money buy some happiness? In my case, YES.

OzbooksOne extremely important and interesting happiness question is the relationship between money and happiness.

On the question of whether money buys happiness, I believe the answer is: It depends.

It depends on the nature of your personality. (Do you have a passion for collecting art or for renting movies? Do you yearn to have your own horse or your own cat?)
It depends on how you spend your money. (Is your money buying cocaine or college? Are you splurging on a convenient gym or a dining room table?)
It depends on how much money you have relative to the people around you, and relative to your own experience. (Are you richer or poorer than most of your friends and family? do you have more or less than you did in the past?)

There are so many aspects to this issue, but it seems to me that because most people scoff (or pretend to scoff) at the idea that money can buy happiness, they don’t spend enough time thinking about how to spend money toward happiness.

Put aside the question of whether to spend money on stuff, or experiences, or health, etc. For now, just think about STUFF.

The fact is, sometimes just the mere possession of some STUFF does give you a big jolt of happiness. (What’s more, sometimes the mere purchase of some stuff gives you something that feels an awful lot like happiness, temporarily – a fact that warrants far greater examination, I think.)

Maybe this shouldn’t be true. But for many people, it is true.

The trick is to know how to spend your money wisely. Some purchases will give you great joy, others are a waste in terms of happiness bang for the buck.

My resolutions include “Think about what happiness money could buy,” “Make purchases that will further my goals—family, friends, work, etc.” and “Indulge in a modest splurge.”

So last week I did something that I’ve been meaning to do since the Big Girl was born. I called the famous children’s bookstore in New York City, Books of Wonder, and ordered the “Wizard’s Super Special—Oz Set #4.” This is the complete set of the fifteen Oz books by L. Frank Baum.

Now that I’ve admitted to myself my deep passion for children’s literature, I no longer pretend to be buying these books for my daughters. I’m buying them for ME.

Yesterday, they arrived in all their glory. They have a lovely unified design, hard-backs, with matching spines and heavy paper. Gorgeous covers with the original illustrations. Color illustrations inside. Fanciful border drawings. Different books have different special touches: the anniversary edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has gilded pages, one book has colored pages as the characters travel through the different colored lands of Oz, another has color used in interesting ways on the pages. (Aha, I see that I am very interested in the GRAPHIC DESIGN!)

I thought I’d only read five or six of these books, but once I looked at them, I realized I had read and re-read all of them – but the library books weren’t nearly as nice as these books.

I haven’t even put them up on a shelf yet. I’ve left them in a big pile on the table, because I get a thrill of happiness each time I see them. (See photo at top.)

Now, happiness experts might argue that I’ll adapt to my purchase. Soon, I’ll be accustomed to owning these books, they’ll sit on a shelf and gather dust, and I’ll be no better off than I was before.

I disagree. Because I have a real passion for children’s literature, I feel confident that these will give me a boost every time I see them. After all, I have a big stack of the old, beat-up, beloved Cricket magazines I had as a child, and those still make me happy, too.

The secret – as in all happiness matters – is to know yourself, and to choose wisely.Glindaoz2

Speaking of Kurt Vonnegut…I was surprised by how moved I was by a visit to his website.

What I learned from “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.”

Yesterday I finished my five-day intensive Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain course. Zoikes, what an astonishing process.

Here is my pre-instruction portrait.Drawselfpreup

This self-portrait is so astoundingly bad that when we put up our pre-instruction and post-instruction portraits, people in the class jokingly asked if I’d really been trying, or if I was just aiming to have the most dramatic improvement. The crazy thing is that I was trying as hard as I could to do a good job.

Here is my post-instruction self-portrait. (Unfortunately, I can’t get rid of the glare, so it’s a bit hard to see.)



It doesn’t really look like me, but it looks like a real drawing of a person. My instructor Brian Bomeisler gave me a huge amount of help, and without that my drawings would have been far different. But nevertheless – I still can’t quite believe I did these.



What a thrill!

Apart from the drawing, the class boosted my happiness in several ways: it put me in touch with new people and ideas; it gave me an adventure outside of my usual routine; by taking me out of my routine, it heightened my appreciation for my usual routine; it gave me the sense of “growth” so important to happiness; it gave me a sense of freedom to realize that I could decide to do something like this and carry it through.

Also – and I didn’t expect this – the class helped me to recognize what I’m actually interested in learning. Before this class, I thought of “art” as a vast subject in which I had an undeveloped but real interest. I wanted to learn something, but I didn’t know quite what.

Now I see more clearly what I’d like to learn.

I’d like to learn how to sketch. I like the idea of setting up to do a full drawing, but I know that I won’t. There are so many things I want to do with my available time; I know I won’t do this kind of drawing. My initial reaction was to deny this truth, try to convince myself that I’d keep up with my new skills, then I thought – nope. I’m not going to make myself feel guilty about this.

Instead, I’d like to learn how to make quick sketches. And as it happens, the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain program offers a one-day sketching course, so I’ll sign up for that this summer.

Also – and this makes perfect sense when I consider that I devoted an entire month of the Happiness Project to “Focus on books” – I realized that I really want to learn about graphic design. Page lay-out, fonts, cover design, the visual presentation of information…these things fascinate me.

That’s why I was ecstatic to discover the incomparable work of Edward Tufte. That’s why I bought Chip Kidd’s fantastic Book One. That’s why I’m telling everyone about one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud (and why I’m reading his Making Comics, even though I don’t even like comics).

I’ve always been fascinated by how readers’ understanding of information can be shaped by presentation. In Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide, I used tip lists, boxes, font changes, boxed quotations, photographs, all sorts of elements to make my information memorable.

In the forty chapters of Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill and Forty Ways to Look at JFK, I used straight narrative, and also the Q-and-A form, a timeline, a map, photographs, arguing both sides of questions, quizzes, and other methods to make my arguments in succinct and provocative ways. This sound tiresomely experimental, but actually, I think it did allow me to impart a huge amount about Churchill and Kennedy in relatively short works – and in an intriguing way.

So again I ask myself: why was it so hard to recognize my passions? Why am I only seeing this interest clearly now? Why couldn’t I see the clues in the books I loved, in the books I WROTE?

Oh, well. Now I know. I’m off to do some research on graphic design…any suggestions?

There’s an interesting new site, Insighta (oh, light dawns, I just got that pun…), that’s like a Digg with a focus on issues related to personal development. A great resource if you have a special interest in these subjects.

This Saturday: a quotation from Bob Dylan.

DylanFrom Bob Dylan’s riveting memoir, Chronicles:

“I looked at the menu, then I looked at my wife. The one thing about her that I always loved was that she was never one of those people who thinks that someone else is the answer to their happiness. Me or anybody else. She’s always had her own built-in happiness.”

This is what I’m striving for – to have my own “built-in happiness.” Not to rely on other people to boost me up, or to let reverses drag me down. Built-in happiness makes it easier to make other people happy, as well.

I imagine this quality would be particularly helpful if you were married to Bob Dylan.

Happiness doesn’t always make you FEEL happy.

DrawingOne of my “Secrets of Adulthood” (see left column) is that “Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy.”

Yesterday, although the drawing class was very tough, I left feeling exhilarated.

This morning, I felt completely different. I dreaded the thought of showing up. I remembered how much my back hurt, how worried I’d been that I wouldn’t be able to keep up, and in particular, how tremendously frustrated (almost panicky) I’d felt when starting my chair drawing.

I had to remind myself that sometimes, happiness is painful. The activities that contribute to long-term happiness don’t always make me feel good in the short-term. I don’t always look forward to those activities. I may find them actually upsetting.

I had to be in my seat by 9:30 a.m., so it wasn’t long before my dread of going to class had turned into a reality. And once I was there with a sketchbook in front of me, I felt fine.

But I realized that it was an advantage to be taking the intensive class, five days in a row. If I’d been taking the course over a semester, I would’ve been dreading the class for a week. Maybe I would have talked myself out of coming back.

Today was tough, too. The more I learn to see, the more I learn to see what I’ve done wrong. But whenever I got discouraged, I’d just take in my entire drawing and gloat, “I DREW this corner! And it actually looks like a corner!” After three days of instruction. Amazing.